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What is liberalism?

Whatever it is, there’s more to it than David Laws would have you believe.

I was irritated by a piece Julian Glover wrote in the Guardian last week and meant to blog about it. An excellent post by Stuart White over at Next Left gives me an excuse to do so belatedly.

Glover was upbraiding Andrew Adonis, whom he described as "a liberal shoehorned into a statist party for the achievement of political purpose", for daring to criticise the decision by the Liberal Democrats to enter into a coalition with the Tories. Adonis had described the coalition as "unprincipled"; Glover appeared to suggest that there was no philosophical basis to Adonis's attack:

The differences within parties have often been as great as the differences between them. Adonis, a former Lib Dem, knows that. His objection -- like the predictable complaints of those Scottish former leaders Kennedy and Steel -- is not that Clegg did a deal, but that he did one with the wrong side. It is striking how the most vocal Labour critics of the coalition are New Labour: as if they mourn being cast adrift in a party whose deeper instincts they know only too well.

Yet the Lib Dem leader got better and more reliable terms from the Tories than he could have [had] from Labour; and, more than that, he has formed a government of broad ideological coherence, which he could not have done with an interim administration led by Gordon Brown.

This is, at its core, as much a liberal administration as a Tory one, joined by a shared scepticism about the effectiveness and financial sustainability of the centralised state.

There's a rather narrow understanding of liberalism implied here, though it is one that is consistent with that of the Orange Book faction of the Lib Dems, who, in the persons of David Laws and Nick Clegg himself, now hold sway in the party (and, indeed, in the coalition). Stuart White offers an excellent summary of this strain of contemporary liberalism:

Their thinking rests on some definite, strong -- albeit rather unexamined -- philosophical assumptions. Reading someone like David Laws, for example, there is at times a clear sense that the free market produces a distribution of income and wealth which is a kind of natural or moral baseline. It is departures from the baseline that have to be justified. Laws and other Orange Bookers are of course not libertarians, so they are prepared to allow that some departures -- some tax-transfers/tax-service arrangements -- can be justified. (This is the sense in which they remain social liberals, albeit not egalitarian ones.) But the presumption, for Laws, is clearly for "leaving money in people's pockets".

White's most important point is that there are resources in contemporary liberal political philosophy for a much more egalitarian, redistributive vision -- a vision of social justice, in other words. The basic assumptions of Orange Book liberalism, White says,

run completely counter to one of the basic claims of contemporary liberalism as developed in the work of such as Rawls, Dworkin and Ackerman.

For these thinkers, the "free market" is simply one possible "basic structure" for society along with an indefinite range of other possibilities. It has no morally privileged position. So how do we choose which "basic structure" to have? Their answer is that we try to identify principles of social justice and then design a basic structure -- including, if necessary, appropriate tax-transfer arrangements -- to achieve justice so understood. On this view, taxation and "redistribution" are not invasions into people's pockets, a taking of what is presumptively already, primevally "theirs". Tax transfers are a way of ensuring that people do not pocket, through the market, more (or less) than they are genuinely entitled to. Tax-transfer schemes define entitlement; they do not invade it.

Simplifying a little, one might say that for these liberal thinkers, it is not the free market that is the appropriate, morally relevant baseline, but equality: it is movement away from equality that has to be justified, not movement away from a free-market distribution.

And, Glover's little lesson in history and philosophy notwithstanding, this is something Andrew Adonis understands very well; though he is less likely to invoke Rawls, Dworkin or Ackerman than the great "social liberals" of the early 20th century -- men like J A Hobson or L T Hobhouse. As Hobhouse put it in his 1911 masterpiece, Liberalism, "The 'right to work' and the right to a 'living wage' are just as valid as the rights of person or property."

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